Lake Tahoe sits on the California Nevada border near Reno in the eastern reaches of the soaring Sierra Nevada. Just west of the lake is a cirquelike valley, called Squaw. To Squaw Valley last week came skiers from 14 countries, including the Soviet Union, mainly to compete in the North American Alpine and Nordic Ski Championships but also to take a good look at this practically unknown area that one year from now will be the site of the Winter Olympics.
Three and a half years ago, when Alec Cushing, owner of the Squaw Valley Lodge, was scuttling back from Paris with the 1960 Winter Olympics tucked under his arm, he was collared in Chicago by Avery Brundage. " Cushing," said Brundage, "you're going to set back the Olympic movement 25 years."
Brundage had a good argument. Cushing had given the International Olympic Committee a fine sales talk, but all he actually had to offer in Squaw Valley along the line of Olympic facilities was one lodge, one double chair lift, one ghastly tram and a horseshoe of mountains that were forever avalanching.
Brundage felt that Cushing had sold a bill of goods and that—taking into consideration the cost of turning Squaw into a suitable Olympic site, the tremendous effort required and the short time available—the whole thing would be a colossal flop.
To anyone who sloshed into Cushing's valley last week, it looked as though Brundage's gloomy prophecy would certainly come true. The valley was a mess. A blizzard had dumped 63 inches of avalanche-prone powder in 42 hours. When the snow stopped, the wind started and blew for three days, piling up huge drifts and cornices on the three Olympic hills—Papoose Peak, KT-22 and Squaw Peak. Then the wind stopped and the rain began—two inches of cold winter drizzle. The rain turned the beautiful powder to slush, and turned Squaw Valley's dirt roads into a series of meandering bogs and rivers. When the rain stopped, the snow started again and came down for three more days, nearly 50 inches of it.
While this incredible weather was making the valley floor resemble a scene from the retreat from Moscow, the effect on the mountains and the Olympic ski trails was even more devastating. Each morning six U.S. Forest Service avalanche experts attacked the mountains to cut down avalanche hazards. To a late riser in the valley, the first sign that the avalanche crews were out was the boom-bang of the 75-mm. and 105-mm. recoilless rifles that were used to bring down big cornices and start loose snowfields sliding. Then there was the more remote and sporadic thump of the hand-thrown seismographic powder charges, carried to places the big guns could not reach. At noon or later, the six men would come swinging down out of the snow, soaking wet, exhausted. And as the week wore on, each time they came down, another trail, another slope and finally another mountain was declared unsafe, shut to both recreational skiers and racers.
The first course to be declared unusable was the men's downhill on Squaw Peak. It was closed off on Monday, Feb. 16 and two days later Avalanche Expert Monty Atwater declared that he didn't see how the course could possibly be opened in time for the North Americans. Accordingly, plans were made to transfer the men's downhill to KT-22. But by Wednesday night, there was more bad news. "This KT-22 has just about got us backed into a corner," said Atwater. "It's got a complete overload of snow, and it's been letting go artificially and naturally all day. These aren't just surface slides. There's one on the west side of KT seven feet deep and a thousand feet long. We may have to close KT-22 and run the whole thing on Papoose."
Beyond the atrocious weather there were other troubles. An Army detachment assigned to Squaw to operate and maintain the heavy equipment the Army had loaned for the Olympics piled out of its buses and headed smartly toward its working quarters. Unfortunately, the man who was supposed to prepare the Army offices had the mumps, the building was locked, no one had the key, and when the colonel in charge finally boosted a man through the window he found the offices bare of furniture. Many of the rooms in the Olympic village had no chairs, tables or bureaus, and a few of them had, until late last week, no beds.
That was not the end of Squaw Valley woes. There was no gas station in the valley where tire chains could be put on and parts battered by the rutted roads repaired. Until last week there was no direct telegraph service into the valley. The telephone switchboards serving the valley were overloaded to the point of near collapse. A fire blackened four rooms in one of the brand-new dormitories in the Olympic village. And the ski jump avalanched.
Mr. Brundage at this point appeared to be right. But, oddly and happily—and barring an absolute catastrophe, the 1960 Winter Olympics are going to be a success.